I last interviewed Gail and Raymond Orwig about their 2018 book, Where Monsters Walked: California Locations of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, 1925 – 1965. Since then, they have continued to explore California’s landscape to document locations crucial to filming various movies from 1919 through 1955. Back with a new book titled Fantastic Serial Sites of California: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Locations, 1919-1955, I was able to interview the Orwigs about their lives and their recent work.
Nicholas Yanes: I last talked to you two in 2018. How has life been? Have you developed any superpowers or solved any longstanding mysteries?
Gail and Ray Orwig: Well, we are now both retired. It was challenging to do all the work and research for the latest book during the pandemic. We had to rely on postcards, and older photos we had taken to make some things work. Our final spring trip for location photo upgrades (in 2020) was cancelled. In other words, we had to be very creative (our superpower!)—but we made it work.
Yanes: You both have had careers in education. Given all that is going on with education in the United States, would you two recommend people pursue this sector for a career?
Ray: Teachers have never been more in demand. I have worked with a number of former students during my career who went into education.
Gail: Children’s librarianship is a rewarding career as well. Like teachers, Librarians will be sorely needed as many are retiring from the profession.
Both of these professions are like location hunting: you do it because you love what you’re doing.
Yanes: Your last book was Where Monsters Walked: California Locations of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, 1925 – 1965. Reflecting on this book, how do you two think you’ve improved as authors since then?
Gail and Ray Orwig: Having the experience of writing the first book made the second one somewhat easier. We have formulated a style that we bring to our writing and images that we think works. We also indexed the manuscript in advance, which saved a tremendous amount of time when finalizing that part of the book (we added the pages to this when the proofs arrived).
Yanes: The latest book from you two is Fantastic Serial Sites of California: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Locations, 1919-1955. What was the inspiration for this manuscript?
Gail and Ray Orwig: We love genre serials as well as genre films. It just seemed a natural progression to delve into any serials that had science fictional or fantasy elements. We had been watching them and started noticing the locations more and more. Like many of the films in our first book, we both watched serials as kids, so we had many fond memories of them.
Yanes: Which locations were you most excited to explore?
Gail and Ray Orwig: The ones that were the most difficult to find locations became the ones we were most excited to explore. We knew when looking at these sites that possibly nobody had connected them to serials before. There were the garage scenes from Adventures of Captain Marvel, the Regent mansion from Return of Chandu, the sanitarium from The Power God, and the varied coastal locations from some of the silent serials just to name a few.
We were thrilled to see that the serials with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. had locations we felt were findable.
Also, we loved watching the silent serials. (We wish there were more available—most are lost—but grateful for those found and being preserved). Serials were just getting going in the early 1910s and teens, and many of them covered several genres—you could find mystery, romance, adventure, and science fiction all in one serial (such as in The Trail of the Octopus)–! And the early serials had plucky heroines: the ladies were the main stars. The prolific Pearl White had over 150 episodes total in all the serials she appeared in! When serials became more formulaic in the ‘40s, many of the female roles were sidekicks reduced to getting concussions, then reviving after the hero’s fight scenes. (Carol Forman in The Black Widow–also the Spider Lady in Superman–and Lorna Gray as Vultura in The Perils of Nyoka were two great exceptions.)
Yanes: You cover the years of 1919 to 1955. Given how much climate change and urban development have transformed landscapes, are there any locations you two are sad that have been lost?
Gail and Ray Orwig: In the 20+ years we have been finding locations, we have come to realize that we are in a race against time. This book has more “No Longer There” locations than the first book. We recently found out that locations on the former Columbia backlot are slated for demolition. Many of these buildings were used in serials. Our late friend and first book Forwardist Bob Stephens called us “obsessed archaeologists” and opined that our photographs are preserving cinematic history. Falling rocks have currently closed the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park, and erosion has also changed the face of some of the rock structures in Red Rock Canyon State Park. (We mention in the book how erosion in the Bronson Caves would make many scenes in the serials difficult to shoot now!)
Yanes: On this note, are there any locations that have shockingly well preserved?
Gail and Ray Orwig: The Los Angeles City Hall, the Beverly Hills City Hall, the Grand Central Air Terminal (thanks to Disney), and the Sunset Tower Hotel are a few that come to mind. (“Shockingly” because frequently, older buildings tend to be torn down in LA—for our first book, on one trip, we arrived just in time to see a “location” building being felled by a wrecking ball).
Yanes: Reflecting on these eras of scifi, are there elements of these movies you would like to see brought back in modern movies? In other words, is there something modern scifi films like you think these classics have?
Gail and Ray Orwig: We probably sound old-fashioned, but the fact that these older films (and serials) actually went to a physical location to film makes it more fun to fans. To be able to actually go and stand where a film was shot will always be a thrill. Of course we realize that travelling to another planet is only possible with the current state of CGI. We have heard from readers that bought the first book and planned their vacation to visit places and go and stand Where Monsters Walked! We hope they do the same with Fantastic Serial Sites. Interestingly, Marvel has brought back a lot of super-heroes: our book contains locations for many of the original super-hero serials based on radio shows and comics such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman, Batman, The Green Hornet, Captain Marvel, and Captain America. It would be cool if they did an updated film version of Perils of Nyoka (which has a great female heroine and female villain).
Yanes: When people finish reading Fantastic Serial Sites of California, what do you hope take away from the experience?
Gail and Ray Orwig: We want our readers to first of all enjoy the experience of watching the serial, but also to look at the photos we matched up and say “How did they find that?” What is neat about the book is you enjoy it on three levels—perhaps finding out about a new serial, information on where the serials were shot, and visiting (most) locations if you wish.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you two working on that people can look forward to?
Gail and Ray Orwig: We have teamed up with some family and friends to do some magazine articles on locations from films shot overseas. We are hoping to continue doing more articles on single film locations. We are also exploring the possibility of doing a work on television locations (science fiction, fantasy, and horror, of course!)